Democratize your education

The university is becoming more and more corporate, but there are ways to resist

Correction appended – Sunday, Sep 18, 2011

In Democracy and Education, philosopher John Dewey asserts that education ought to presuppose the growth of not only individuals, but thriving democratic communities. Educational aspirations are indistinguishable from the pursuit of communal wellbeing. However, the marriage between education and community is being preyed upon by the capitalist hyena, rendering communal priorities subservient to corporate agendas. The rabid cost-benefit calculations that penetrate the policies of those dictating our educational experience are undermining the decency – in every sense of the word – of our education.

Principal Heather Munroe Blum’s Strategic Framing Initiative (or SRI, outlined in that oh-so-sanguine email we received Tuesday) exemplifies most tangibly our education’s tendency to veer toward the neoliberal. The SRI regards “find[ing] ways to either save costs or generate new revenues” as paramount, listing “cost-efficiencies” as the first of the initiative’s five themes on the project website. As part of the SRI, McKinsey and Co., a consulting firm whose infamous zeal for austerity measures heralds tuition increases and cuts to (lower-quality) higher education, has been contracted to work with McGill. The SRI further upholds a mandate to help “our researchers, with minimal red tape, attract the funding they need to put their great ideas to work serving society.” Indeed, the “minimal red tape” provision aligns with McGill’s lax research policies which have, for instance, permitted the unfettered capacity of Mechanical Engineering professor David Frost to conduct research on thermobaric explosives, which according to Human Rights Watch “kill and injure in a particularly brutal manner over a wide area.”  Permissiveness for unethical research, regardless of its callous disregard for consequences for humanity, is a corollary of the University’s neoliberal re-configuration from community-hub to corporate-hub.

The infiltration of cost-benefit philosophies into research production related to education demonstrates education’s weakening role as a custodian of humanity. In September, Joce Jesson, a professor of Critical Studies in Education at the University of Auckland, led a seminar on “Globalization, Education, and Change” at McGill. Jesson, who was commissioned to research the state of education in New Zealand, uncovered the chronic ineffectiveness of her homeland’s schools in cultivating motivated and successful students. After she completed her investigation, the board that commissioned it refused Jesson her promised payment and the publication of her research due to its incompatibility with the board’s penchant for capital-accumulation.

Corporate dosages have similarly been injected into McGill’s medical research community. Last year, McGill reviewed a case of potential academic misconduct by professor Barbara Sherwin, who was accused of supporting a scheme concocted by drug behemoth Wyeth Pharmaceuticals after she failed to fully acknowledge assistance she had in writing an article published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. The article, exploring the effectiveness of a variety of treatments in dealing with age-associated memory loss – was drafted with some editorial assistance from ghostwriting firm DesignWrite, which collaborates with Wyeth Pharmaceuticals to promote the latter’s products.  This evidence of the medical community’s reliance on marketing material rather than medical literature when dealing patients’ health marks the descent of “the community” in the hierarchy of what our education operates to serve.

Yet we have access to channels of agency in re-democratizing our education to serve the community rather than the CEOs. For instance, CURE (the Community-University Research Exchange) “is a database by which students can integrate their academic research with the work of local movements and activist organizations.” McGill already has the infrastructure in place to recognize CURE research – in the form of an internship or independent study course – for credit. The CURE database connects students with non-profit community groups that work in fields ranging from environmental justice, food policy, ableism, anti-police brutality, migrant justice, and first nations, and queer advocacy. Embarking on a CURE project allows us to “work with local movements for social change … to make rubble of the walls which enclose academic privilege.” Lingering in isolation in an academic setting allows us to erect theoretical shutters which block out vistas to the community.

Why not support Right to City Montreal’s goal of understanding and redressing the grievances generated by gentrification in the Parc-Extension neighbourhood, or assist Solidarity Across Borders in developing strategies for supporting migrant rights through a CURE research project while working toward your degree? Channels of agency always remain to create an academic experience that palpably supports the broader community. I encourage you to consider these avenues to subvert and reconstruct the narrow, individualistic neoliberal framework into which our educational experience is being compressed.

Due to an editorial error, an earlier version of this article (Commentary, March 10, pg. 9) Professor Sherwin is incorrectly identified as falsely attributing herself as the author of the article; in fact, she failed to fully acknowledge assistance she had in writing it. Also, in the earlier version of the article incorrectly identified the topic of the article; the article dealt with a range of treatments for age-associated memory loss. Also, the earlier version mistakenly stated that DesignWrite wrote the article in question; in fact, they provided some editorial assistance. The article has been edited to correct these errors. The Daily regrets the errors.